Care and Feeding

My Child’s Teacher Is Racist

What should I do?

A kid holds his hand to his head with images of Martin Luther King Jr. in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Rowland Scherman/Wikipedia, and Nobel Foundation.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My children and I live in a community that, through no fault of its own, is not culturally, racially, or economically diverse. Educators have a difficult time addressing certain topics with my biracial kids. The overwhelming majority of my children’s educators are not minorities, and they fumble awkwardly and fail to approach racial issues with tact.

Case in point: In a class of predominantly white students at my oldest son’s school, a teacher made a reference that Martin Luther King Jr. was more of a “troublemaker” than a leader. Emphasis was placed on the opinion that he could have gotten farther “with honey” had he been focused on the right things. There is audio and video recording of this statement, because it is common practice in this particular history course to have discussions preserved.

This happened a few days ago, and I’ve yet to contact the school/district/state authorities because I want to process it first. Aggressively ignorant statements like these are not uncommon. How would you use this specific incident as a teaching tool?

—The Last Straw

Dear Last Straw,

“Aggressively ignorant” might be too kind a description for such comments—this teacher is misrepresenting history and whitewashing the discrimination, terror, and violence whites inflicted upon blacks for centuries leading up to the civil rights movement. A U.S. History teacher ought to know better. I wonder if they’ve read “Letter From Birmingham Jail“? And more generally, I wonder if they’ve ever thought critically about their own whiteness?

Full disclosure: I am white. I teach in a diverse school, and I care deeply about educational equity. At the same time, I shamefully admit that I have made mistakes in my teaching. I can think of times that my whiteness interfered with my ability to reach some of my students. I am not writing from my high horse, but rather from my belief that educators must strive to be anti-racist, which requires white teachers to face uncomfortable truths about our own privilege. We must be humble rather than defensive.

But I don’t need to tell you any of that.

I usually suggest that parents talk with the teacher before going to the principal. However, your letter suggests this is not an isolated incident, so I think it is appropriate to go directly to the school principal. I would emphasize that the problem is not one unfortunate comment during a class discussion but rather a systemwide culture that is unwelcoming and potentially harmful to students of color. Educators, even “aggressively ignorant” ones, usually believe that schools should offer an equal education to all students, and so I do hope in my heart of hearts that the principal will take your concerns seriously.

The principal needs to develop a plan for professional development—this is not an issue that will be solved in one faculty meeting or an email. I found Critical Friends Group training to be particularly powerful, but it is often expensive. I also find Teaching Tolerance resources helpful, and they are free. I realize it might seem strange for a parent to suggest professional development to a principal, so feel free to send your principal this column if you like.

I know this is a lot to take on. Do you know any like-minded parents who would band with you? There is power in numbers.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My kindergartner is given a weekly homework sheet. He is supposed to complete one item each night and return it at the end of the week. I’m not nuts about homework at the kindergarten level, but it typically consists of items like “read with your family,” “practice the yoga pose we did in class today,” and a couple of worksheets for math and handwriting. I let him choose the order in which to complete the assignments, and this week he put off the two worksheets until Thursday night. When we had finished dinner and I informed him it was homework time, he had a meltdown and told me he didn’t want to do it (ideally we would have done it in the afternoon, but we were late getting home and the poor kid needed some downtime). I told him that was fine, but he needed to realize he wouldn’t get a prize from his teacher’s treasure box, the reward she gives students who complete all their homework. My husband overheard and announced he was not OK with that and that homework wasn’t optional. What are your thoughts? I want to instill a good work ethic in him, but I also don’t want to create negative attitudes around learning at a young age.

—Homework: Yay or Nay?

Hey Homework,

Homework at this age should always be optional. While I understand your husband’s sentiment to want to ensure work is getting done in a timely fashion, let’s not forget you son is only in kindergarten. Many teachers have opted out of assigning homework in grades K–5 altogether. I’m one of those teachers. As I’ve written before in this column, I don’t believe in assigning any homework to my second graders because research shows that traditional homework (worksheets, book reports, etc.) has been found to have little to no impact on academic success.

If you do feel like your child is the type who needs to develop a productive work ethic, I would consider breaking the written portion of the homework into bite-size chunks over the week. Maybe do some in the morning before school and a bit in the afternoon right when you get home. I wouldn’t wait too long after arriving home because it’s much more difficult to encourage kids to get back into learning mode after they’ve had some time to unwind. Hope this helps!

—Mr. Hersey (second grade teacher, Washington)

My husband and I have four children. Our youngest will turn 5 in April; he has Down syndrome, and we adopted him three years ago. He spent the first two years of his life in an orphanage receiving inadequate care. Most experts agree that for every three months a child spends in an institution, they lose one month of development. Between the orphanage delays, as well as the delays that typically accompany Down syndrome, our son is very small for his age, and behind developmentally. The clock basically started at zero when we adopted him.

He currently attends a fabulous peer-modeling morning preschool offered by our district. He has made huge strides, and we were hoping he would be allowed to attend a third year of preschool, but we just received word that that is not an option. His teachers are really encouraging us to send him to kindergarten this fall. We live in the best district in our city, and he would be mainstreamed most of the day, would have an aide in the classroom with him, and all expectations would be tailored to his abilities. That is obviously all wonderful, but he is so small (he just started wearing 3T clothes!) and so delayed in comparison with a typical kindergartner. I’m worried that all the kids in his class will see him as a baby or pet, and treat him as such. Furthermore, I’m a big believer in better late than early; I wouldn’t have sent my older, typical son to kindergarten at age 5, so I’m struggling with the idea of sending this son, even though it will be completely different than what a typical child would experience.

At this point, our other option is to find a private preschool for next year. There is a Montessori preschool around the corner, and a highly regarded preschool for kids with Down syndrome about 10 minutes away, as well as multiple other, more “basic” options. If he attended a private preschool, he would lose out on therapy through the state for that year, and of course they are all quite expensive. But we would find a way to make it work if we felt it was the best option.

Keeping him home for a year is not an option; I homeschool my older three, and his energy level could be described as “Curious George and a Tornado Had a Baby.” Schooling well is impossible when he’s home. Plus, he loves school and always asks to go. What do you recommend?

—Should He Stay or Should He Go?

Dear SHSoSHG,

Without intervention—even if you wait a year—the kids in his class will see him as a baby or pet. I’m sure you’ve seen this on the playground or in other kid-saturated settings.
Kids direct questions to you that should be directed to him. They talk baby-talk to him. They pick him up. They help him with things he doesn’t need help with.

I know this because I, too, have a son with Down syndrome who appears years younger than his chronological age. My guy is 5½, wears 4T, moves like a 3-year-old, and speaks like a 15-month-old. He’ll be starting kindergarten in August, a month before his sixth birthday. Regardless of how others view him, I am really glad he’s had three full years in preschool. He has made a ton of progress in the past year that I believe will make a difference in his overall academic and social experience in elementary school.

That’s why, if it’s financially feasible, I would follow your gut and send him to another year of preschool.

Either way, be prepared to talk to his kindergarten teacher about how to introduce your son to the class. I plan to request to speak to the class myself, and for months now, I’ve been composing my talk in my head. It’ll go something like this:

Hi, friends! This is Arlo. Can you say hi to Arlo? Arlo, can you say hi to your new friends? Do you all notice anything that’s a little different about Arlo? Yes, he [is smaller, wears a diaper, speaks differently, etc.] That’s because he was born with Down syndrome. Does anyone know someone with Down syndrome or what Down syndrome is?

… Down syndrome is a condition that makes people grow and develop more slowly than people without it. Arlo has a twin who doesn’t have Down syndrome, and even though they’re the exact same age, Arlo has taken much longer to do things than his brother. For example, Patrick started walking when he was 1, but Arlo scooted on his behind until he was 3. Patrick talked when he was 2 and can have whole big conversations, while Arlo still makes sounds that are hard to understand as words if you don’t know him. Patrick was potty-trained a long time ago; Arlo’s still working on it.

So, Arlo will often need extra help from the teachers and from you. Can you think of ways you could help Arlo? [Allow them to suggest things.] Those are good ideas. Mostly, he’ll need your patience. He doesn’t need you to do things for him; he needs you to be patient while he tries to do things. He needs you to have patience when he’s trying to talk to you. [I’ll probably demonstrate some of his sounds so the kids can hear what his “words” sound like.]

There’s another thing I want to ask of you. Because he hasn’t yet learned all the things you have and can’t yet do all the things you can do, he probably seems younger than you. But it’s important that you treat him like the almost-6-year-old that he is. Don’t treat him like a baby—no baby talk, no picking him up, no doing things for him that he needs to learn for himself. OK? Do you think you can do that?

Great! Last thing: I know none of you will make fun of Arlo because he can’t yet do the things you can do, but other kids who don’t know him might. Will you help him by standing up for him? If you see someone making fun of him, will you say, “It’s not OK to treat my friend that way!” Thanks!

What questions do you have?

I have a few months to revise, but that’s the gist. Feel free to take what works and leave what doesn’t, but I urge you to prepare your own talk to ask for what your son needs from his peers.

—Ms. Scott (eighth grade teacher, North Carolina)

My son is a precocious 4-year-old who has attended a private preschool since he was 2. He is in the transitional kindergarten program and is bored out of his mind. He can read, do second grade level math (he begs to complete pages of a workbook for fun each night), and he has been able to write all of his letters since he was 2. Until recently, he’s been content with going to school as he loves the playground and spending time with his friends.

Since winter break, he begs to stay home from school every day and no longer wants to complete the basic work that his teacher asks of him (think counting three objects and writing the number 3 or writing a letter 10 times). The school he attends addresses advanced needs once in kindergarten but will not do so formally in preschool. We are struggling with what we should do (we both work so keeping him home is not an option).

Should we set up a meeting with his teacher (who is also the director of the preschool) and request that he be given more challenging work? Also, we are struggling with what to do next year as the kindergarten decision looms. His teacher had recommended at the start of his preschool year that we may want to consider skipping kindergarten. I hesitate to do so, as I think the change from half day to full day will be an adjustment and he is six months younger than the majority of his classmates. We want to do right by our son and want him to have a childhood as long as possible, but it feels like we are approaching the point of no return where school becomes a hated/boring thing to endure (we live in rural North Carolina and school choices are quite limited). How can we best maximize his experience at school and ensure his educational needs are being adequately met?

—I’m Not Smarter Than My 4-year Old

Dear INSTM4YO,

To be brutally honest, my gut instinct is that you can’t have it both ways. Academic rigor isn’t part of the preschool curriculum by design. Preschoolers don’t need to be learning academics—they need social skills and school readiness skills, and pre-academics are a nice bonus.
Preschool is literally pre school, as in “the thing you do before school.” It’s great if your son is reading and doing math, but those are not skills preschool focuses on. There are a few things for you to consider here.

Let me preface everything by saying that I think you are right to exercise some degree of caution when deciding whether your son should skip a grade. It’s almost never my first choice, or even in my top five choices.

First, I want you to consider that age is somewhat arbitrary when it comes to when kids start kindergarten. There’s nothing magical that happens when kids turn 5 that makes a child ready for kindergarten. We start kindergarten at 5 by convention, but there are 4-year-olds who are ready, and there are kids who do “looped” two-year kindergarten programs because they need a second shot to get it right. Some kids are more mature and could theoretically start earlier, and some kids are less mature and need more time. Your son may be in the former category, and that’s OK.

That’s probably where the list of kindergarten skills from the school comes in. I know for a fact that North Carolina has standards for preschool, and if you cross-reference those, plus the list supplied to you, against skills your child has, you can probably determine if your son is academically ready for first grade. If his teachers are confident he has the social skills to acclimate, a tougher academic environment will probably benefit him. One thing I also sometimes remind parents is that although kids learn a lot from their teachers, they also learn a lot from their peers. It may benefit your child socially to be in a class with children who are “ahead” of him in maturity or academics because those children will challenge him and help him grow.

There is absolutely a point at which the current grade level is not able to provide the degree of academic rigor a child needs, especially in a smaller, more rural setting. In big city schools, there are more options for enrichment or tracking, but smaller communities can’t necessarily sustain that in terms of population. I don’t know your community specifically, but it’s possible that there won’t be many opportunities to push him in kindergarten.

On the other hand, if you don’t think your son is ready, maturity-wise, or you don’t want him to start school yet for other reasons (wanting to prolong his early childhood), you can talk to the teacher about giving him more time in preschool,or about finding ways to enrich his preschool environment. Maybe he can have special jobs in the classroom or adapt crafts to incorporate some of his academic skills. Let his teacher know that he’s been having problems and that he wasn’t before, and she will have ideas for you. The only long-term downside is that he may hit some developmental milestones, such as puberty, later than his peers. And though the difference in attention span is small for younger children, at that jump from early elementary to upper elementary (third or fourth grade, where academics jump up quite a bit in difficulty level), he may or may not need some compensatory skills to keep up with his peers. On the other hand, though, he will have had the same practice as all his peers, so that may not even be an issue.

Finally, bear in mind that any changes kids have in the month or so following winter break can be the result of regression rather than an actual change in your child’s needs. It may be the case that if you give him time to settle back in, the problem magically goes away.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education teacher, New York)

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My daughter is currently in half-day kindergarten and loves it. All seems well, and she seems to be excelling academically—at least as far as I can tell. But we get no feedback whatsoever from the teacher. How much should I expect to hear from my child’s teacher?